Fifty-three of us gathered together for what has become one of our most important traditions – the “Last GASP”. It was so great to see so many Safe Place faculty and staff, and so many student friends of GASP who often are unable to join us regularly. Come whenever you can, you are always welcome.
After one last check-in, this week with summer plans, we settled in to hear reflections on their GASP experiences from graduating seniors. As always these stories were deeply moving, reminding us again of how the powerful role this community plays in the lives of so many of our students – a role that often changes as the students themselves change and develop over their journey in college. It is always remarkable to me that in an institutional economy where student time is primarily regulated extrinsically by “points” they earn for grades or “credits” they earn to satisfy worship requirements, so many students regularly attend GASP for purely intrinsic reasons. One reason for this appears to be the appeal of the the safe space created by this group. As one GASPer reminded us in his reflection, verbal and emotional attacks can be worse than physical ones, and in that sense, while we have not heard evidence for many years of hate-based physical violence on campus, PUC is still not safe for LGBTQ students. It is painful and tragic and humiliating to be constantly reminded that still, halfway through the second decade of the twenty-first century, students can not walk the campus holding hands with a same-sex boyfriend or girlfriend, or bending artificially dichotomous gender conceptualizations and expectations, without fearing and often encountering the painful aversive social consequences that narrow-minded communities use to enforce thoughtless and fear-based conformity. For these students GASP is one oasis in a desert of constant threat of attack and rejection.
What is sometimes less obvious is that GASP provides that sense of safety for students who identify as “straight” also. Mainstream culture in general, and Adventist college culture in particular, is riddled with conformity demands of all sorts, which results in pressure and anxiety. The GASP space allows students to feel comfortable being themselves, whatever that might happen to be, and as they are in the process of changing into something else. Several Last GASPs emphasized how the community had helped them grow into more accepting and loving people, and maybe more comfortable and accepting with themselves.
But the Last GASP is not all self-congratulation. Several graduating seniors checked us on our own limited horizons and challenged us to find ways to do more, better. It has been easy for us to focus on gay and lesbian identities, which in the larger culture have already begun to receive more attention and support. We have not done nearly as well with some of the other aspects of the greater LGBTQ community, and some students feel somewhat lost and marginalized even within the GASP spaces. Sexual and gender fluidity challenge and transform comfortable, rigid categories that are used to simplify and control the rich complexity of human experience. We need to find better ways of educating ourselves about this, and making space within our community for everyone to feel heard and seen and loved and accepted in whatever part of the spectrum they are occupying. We also got checked on the assumptions that we make about those who attend GASP, and the implicit demands made on people to place and limit themselves in some kind of identity box.
The stories that get told at GASP stay at GASP, so I will not identify people or share details of their stories here. They were inspiring and moving and challenging each in their own way, and we will so miss each of the graduating GASPers, who will leave a hole in our space, but also a mark and contribution to our community. I will make one brief exception in the case of President Nathan, who said his good-bye after many years of singular contribution to GASP. Nathan has a soft voice and a gentle spirit, which in some ways might lead to the expectation that his impact might be hard to notice. But nothing could be further from the truth. Nobody in the history of GASP has done more to increase our visibility or attract more new members than Nathan. He was part of our group when we were still very small, and is himself one reason why we got so large. More than that, his quiet and loving and patient spirit has infused our community and is largely responsible for how safe and inviting the space has become. Thank you, Nathan, for everything you have done for us over the years – come back and visit us often!
Good luck to all GASPers over the coming Final Exam week. We will very much miss you all over the summer. Amy Rivas is our new President, and we will be making announcements about other leadership positions soon. Contact one of the student leaders, or one of the faculty advisers (Leticia or Aubyn), or anyone in the Safe Place Support Network over the summer if you need to talk. We hope that you take with you wherever you go a small piece of the love and safety and acceptance that we hope you are able to find at GASP. If there are times that you feel rejected or hated or less than, please try to remember that you are very much loved, and there is a place in Davidian Hall that is always waiting to give you a hug.